The Culvert

 

“Where does it lead?” Mina crouched and tried to peer behind the metal grate. The concrete tube curved away.

“To the factory,” Josh replied distractedly. Her derriere was hanging utterly too close to the water.

“Are you checking me out?” she teased. She knew he preferred men.

“More like watching out for you,” he pouted. His friend could read his mind even when her back was turned. He loved and hated her for it.

She twisted to peek at him. “The danger being?”

“Getting wet.”

Mina laughed. Josh was fussier than her own mother. “I won’t melt.”

“Not from normal water, you wouldn’t, but there’s a reason the factory was ordered closed, and why authorities reinforced the grates on this culvert. Only God and the now-dead-factory-owners-and-workers know what’s in there. I don’t like this.”

Mina’s witty retort fizzled when she caught sight of movement, barreling toward the grate.

She screamed.

 

 

 

For Crispina’s Crimson’s Creative Challenge #60

 

Ethera

The Offering: painting and photo © Sue Vincent at scvincent.com

Photo prompt: Sue Vincent

 

She was Ethera, and she came at the peak of the longest night, on the cusp of the broadening daylight.

She was Ethera. A human. A spirit. A soul. Sometimes one. Often all.

She’d lived among them, flesh and blood and hope and heartache. She’d hungered and shivered and grew and raised and danced and cried and plowed. There had been nothing in her that foretold what she’d become once she passed the veil to the realm of Nether. Where summer did not come and winter did not grip the land and where the prayers of people held substance, unlike bodies, which did not.

She was Ethera. Unseen by most. Perceived by some. Hoped for by many. Feared by almost everyone.

Feared though she’d rarely brought on harm that wasn’t already in the making. Feared though she heralded truth, which for a reason she hadn’t been able to fathom, so many fought against.

She passed like air. Like wind. Like the willow whispering a breeze into one’s ear come silent night.

She was Ethera. And she came bearing gifts: Of scented fields. Of sunlit glens. Of fruit blushing ripe atop the trees. Of roots awaiting the fattening of rain. Of undulating earthworms sliding through the layers of the dirt to aerate the unseen.

As she could, too, pass between the layers of being.

She was Ethera. Some thought her fog. Some thought her ghost. Some knew her as the mist that rose to hold the moments yet to come and the droplets of the feelings those would bring.

She came at the deepest hollow of the longest night, and in her palms she held a bowl of alms, collected by the people’s dreams to appease the frost and sing the morning in.

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s Write Photo Challenge

 

 

The Key

michael-dziedzic-1bjsASjhfkE-unsplash

Photo: Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

 

It was the key that would change everything.

He only found it because Cooper, ever disobedient, had slipped the leash and ran off the trail and into the thick of the woods. Again.

Deena thought his walks in the forest were cruel.

“It is his breed’s nature to hunt scents,” she’d inevitably complain about the leash, ruining what calm there was to be had in an afternoon walk. “How can you chain him to you when he’s meant to run where his nose leads?”

In Leigh’s view, walking the canine on paved sidewalks where there was no loam or crushed insects or chipmunk poo for Cooper to breathe, was actually far crueler. And so, like they often did when it came to disagreements, they ended up taking the easier way out by splitting the walks between them.

Deena would walk Cooper in the mornings in the neighborhood, where the most the dog could sniff was garbage cans and the occasional fellow leashed-pooch’s butt. Leigh walked him after work, and almost always in the direction of the woods, where in some ways they were both of them at home and both straining against some kind of leash.

It wasn’t perfect and sometimes it was lonely, but he preferred it that way. Quieter. With none of Deena’s nattering about minutia that he found excruciatingly boring to listen to and only slightly less indecent to ignore.

Not that he’d say that to her. Life was better when some observations were kept to oneself.

Like about keys …

He’d been running after Cooper when he tripped on an exposed root. A stream of words he’d learned while serving on a Navy ship spilled out of his mouth, when a shape manifested on the leaf-strewn forest floor. And it was as if a switch flipped and turned his mouth dumb.

He swallowed but there was nothing. His body shuddered with the memories of how quickly a mouth can turn devoid of moisture. That, too, he’d learned while serving on the ship.

He shook it off to make the involuntary shaking into an act of volition. Still his heart whooshed in his ears as he took a knee to the wet ground and reached for the key.

He didn’t know how long he remained frozen, fingers hovering without actually touching the bit of metal. Long enough for Cooper to return to investigate. Because the next thing  Leigh was aware of was Cooper’s wet nose, sniffing at the object of his master’s interest, licking Leigh’s fingers, breathing on his cheek.

“Move,” Leigh nudged the canine gently out of the way.

And Cooper, for once respectful without bribery, obeyed, and stretched with head on paws, his tongue dangling and his long body smeared with something Leigh noted to himself in passing would need scrubbing off with soap before being allowed back indoors.

“It’s the key, Cooper,” Leigh whispered. He was awed. He was aghast. “But how?”

It’s been eight years, five months, and two days since he’d lost it. On a different continent, in what felt a different world, in the middle of a battle, and not two hours after he’d sworn to his dying best friend that he would guard it with his life and bring it home to the fiance Mark had left behind.

“It was to be my wedding gift to Deena,” Mark had gasped, fighting for every breath. “She doesn’t know about it. I was waiting to tell her. It’s the key to my safe.”

 

 

 

For Linda Hill’s SoCS prompt: Key

 

Ring-a-marole

 

“Why’d they do that?”

“‘Twas needful.”

Sheri twisted her skinny braid around her finger. It was the one benefit of having really fine hair. She could get it to loop five times while Marina only could loop hers twice. Long fingers helped, too. Marina’s were chunky. From Dad’s side. “Needful how?”

“Protect the tree, this does.”

“From what?” There was nothing in their end of the park.

“From whom, more like.”

Sheri unwound her braid and stuck the edge of it in her mouth.

“Mom doesn’t like it when you do that.”

“Mom isn’t here,” Sheri stated. Besides, her sister was just jealous because her own hair was too short to suck on. “Protect from who? And why?”

“‘Tis for me to know and for you to find out,” Marina regarded the ring of metal stakes, the tree, her sister’s face.

“You plain don’t know,” Sheri stomped, frustrated.

Marina smiled.

 

 

 

For Crispina’s CCC challenge #55

 

 

Roundabout Waiting

Photo prompt: © C.E. Ayr

 

“He’s still there.” Morty whispered, his nose to the window.

“What’s he waiting for?” Bella pushed Morty over to make room, pressed her head to his.

“I dunnow.”

“You’re not even allowed to stop for pick-up on roundabouts,” Bella noted.

Morty sighed. Since she’d found a driver’s-ed pamphlet, his twin had turned an insufferable source of traffic trivia. Never mind it’d be a million years before she could drive.

“Should we go ask?” Bella fidgeted.

Morty shook his head. “Dad said wait here.”

“But it’s been eight hours!”

It had. And almost as long since the old man showed up.

 

 

 

For Rochelle’s Friday Fictioneers

 

 

One Thousand Steps

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

The snow fell softly in the early hours, blanketing a brittle frost with a bridal veil.

She undid the entrance flap and shivered in the chill. Her thin underclothing was not sufficient for the cold. She retreated back into the shelter to don her clothes, lace her cloak, and pull on her boots.

Still when she emerged from the tent, her breath caught in the frigid air. She welcomed it. She needed her wits about her, today more than most.

Her feet crunched over the frozen ground as she hurried to relieve herself by a nearby tree. The warmth leaving her body felt palpable. In it there was relief and wariness, both.

She did not fold the tent but she did not know if she’d return to it. What she did not carry along might not be seen again … and she would not be carrying much. She was warned to bring naught but herself.

“You’d have no need for anything,” were the instructions.

The words could be ominous or comforting. She wasn’t sure which it was and she didn’t think she was meant to be certain about it. Or about anything.

There was some food left in her pack, but her stomach did not feel ready for any digesting. She drank some water instead. It tasted flat and smelled of the container it’s been in, but it would have to do. She didn’t know where water sources might be found and even if she saw some on the path she didn’t think she’d be able to avail herself of any.

She shuddered again. Of fear. Of cold. Of worry. Of expectation. Of trepidation. Of all of the above.

It will be what it will. She had little choice now. She’d given her word, and what follows was not for her to decide on anymore.

She turned her back to the tent and began counting paces. The location for her tent had been marked. The one thousand steps were to be taken away from it, with the rising sun at her back.

She mouthed the numbers, ignoring the breeze as it tunneled under her cloak, the errant twigs that grabbed hold of her hood and deposited wet fluffs of snow on her hair, down the nape of her neck, on her back. No one had said what will happen if she lost count. She did not intend to find out.

The steps became a meditation of intent and tunnel vision. The world receded into the yard immediately ahead. Then the next. Then the next.

Nine hundred ninety nine, she breathed.

“Turn around.”

She jumped. The sound came from the space her body had just vacated.

She turned only to be blinded by the sun’s glare, rising through the narrow branches of a sapling. The light speared her.

When she finally adjusted, she was elsewhere. The forest was no more. The world as she’d known it, gone.

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto

 

 

The Bag

Photo prompt: © Ted Strutz

 

She stopped by to check on her elderly neighbor and saw a bulging bag on the curb. Odd. Trash-collection was two days away. Ethel could get ticketed.

She grabbed the bag. The thing was heavy! How did the ancient women lug this? She carried it up the path to the door.

“Ethel?” she knocked. “It’s Belinda.”

Silence. Was Ethel sleeping? Belinda knocked again. Waited. Rang the bell. Used her key.

There was no one home. All personal effects gone.

Heart pounding, Belinda rushed to untie the bag.

A mess of photos spilled out, scattering Ethel’s life to the ground.

 

 

 

For Rochelle’s Friday Fictioneers

 

 

Forget The ABC

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

“If you knew where it goes, would you follow?”

Efran peeked down the leaf-strewn stone shaft and rough steps. “I can see where it goes,” he pointed. “There.”

Jerow shook his head. It could be difficult to know with Efran, whose disposition tended to be ebullient to the point of daft, whether the lad was deliberately vexing or totally clueless. “Yes, you see what looks like the bottom of the stairs, but what’s behind it? Where does it go?”

Efran took anther step and leaned closer to the crack between the stones, absentmindedly pushing back the locks of hair that forever escaped out of his braid. “Well, only one way to know.”

“Wait,” Jerow reached for Efran’s arm. He glanced behind him toward the encampment they’d wandered away from. The trees obscured it. Unless others were stretching restless legs while the elders deliberated the day’s route over morning tea, no one would know where they are. “Shouldn’t we tell someones?”

“Why? So they open a whole new round of discussions about who should be allowed to go down there first and at what auspicious hour?”

Jerow had to admit Efran had a point. If the elders knew about this, they’d probably find reason to forbid it, and if they didn’t know about this, they’d forbid it all the more. Probably claim ABC and CBC.

“Advice Before Carelessness” and “Caution Before Curiosity” were endlessly drilled and just as often resented. How was anyone to learn anything new or do anything exciting if inevitable delays always took precedent to investigation?

Still, he wondered if in this particular case there was merit to at least asking before launching oneself into a crack in the ground. They were, after all, in what everyone knew were haunted territories. He looked around again, almost hoping for someone to stop them.

“Forget the ABC!” Efran dropped his feet onto the steps and used his arms to brace against the narrow walls. “I want to see! Stick to your letters or come with me!”

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto

 

 

Cryptography

https://crimsonprose.files.wordpress.com/2019/06/no-junk-mail-1.jpg?w=640&h=427

 

“How would this work, exactly?”

Jason shrugged and bent to scratch a bug-bite on his ankle, shaggy mane covering his face.

Mark narrowed his eyes. “Seriously, Man, who’d put a mailbox on a crypt?”

Jason straightened, and not for the first time, Mark couldn’t help but think of puppets with too many strings and too few fingers to operate them. Everything about Jason was too long, too lanky, too loose. It was as if someone had forgotten to tighten the screws in his friend’s joints. He’d known Jason since Second-grade, yet something about seeing his classmate’s movements in this setting, woke a bell of alarm in Mark’s belly.

He moves like a mummy, he realized. Shuddered. Shook it off.

“My Granny says some use it,” Jason replied, oblivious.

“For real?”

The tow-headed boy nodded. “Requests for revenge, mostly, she says. After all, it is the crypt of a mass-murderer.”

 

 

For Crimson’s Creative Challenge

 

Shadow Path

shadow path OfirAsif

Photo: Ofir Asif

 

He took the path in shadow, and it seemed he was forever chasing sunlight as it progressed across the crater faster than his feet could carry him.

Bone-dry tired as he was.

It was better, he supposed, to be in the shadow. He was, he knew, perilously close to collapse.

Still the sun called to him. The shimmer played a trick upon his eyes and he craved the light even as he knew to fear it.

He’d been crossing deserts for what felt like a millennia of a parched destiny.

In linear time it had not been even quite a week …

Since he took the path of shadow.

In life. In hope of refuge. In this.

The sun slunk lower, further elongating the darkened tide of baked dirt, spreading to gobble up the fast receding patch of light.

He’d need to make camp soon.

One time had been plenty to be taken by surprise.

He knew.

Shadow will not wait long to turn into pitch dark.

 

 

 

For Terri’s Sunday Stills: Path